Franklin Roosevelt, Billie Holiday, and Anti-Lynching Legislation


Like millions of other PBS-TV fans, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary film “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” for seven straight nights recently.

As a criminal justice college instructor, I’m always looking for references to crime and criminal justice that I can incorporate into my classes to enhance the learning experiences for my students. So, in the 14 hours of “The Roosevelts,” I was on the look-out for things I could pass on to my students. And I found them.

One was something I already knew something about. That is, having read a previous Theodore Roosevelt biography, I was aware that he was the president of the New York City police commissioners in the 1890s. What I wasn’t fully aware of was the frustration this experience caused him. As a reform-minded public servant and police commissioner, he wanted to eliminate corruption while improving the ability of police officers to do their job. However, he finally resigned in despair because he believed he had no power to bring about significant change; he preferred to go on to other public service positions that might prove more fulfilling for him.

Then, near the end of the extraordinarily well-done documentary, there was a brief mention of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt’s positions in regard to a proposed 1937 anti-lynching bill in the U.S. Congress. As a liberal, Eleanor was strongly in favor of such legislation and urged her husband to lobby in favor of the Gavagan-Wagner-Van Nuys anti-lynching bill. President Roosevelt, more politically attuned to what battles he should take up, avoided this one. And the legislation, while passing in the House of Representatives, failed in the Senate.

As a Billie Holiday devotee, I am very familiar with her hit song from two years later  entitled Strange Fruit. The story of the recording is an interesting one because Billie’s own record company, Columbia Recording Corporation, wouldn’t let her record this song about lynching black people in the South. It was too controversial for Columbia. But Billie had performed it in night clubs and this mournful, poignant song never failed to profoundly affect audiences. Billie said she wanted to record it. Columbia executives said that was fine, she could record it – just not for them. After all, they sold records in the South and it would be bad for sales of other records. So, they gave her permission to record the song for another company.

Milt Gabler, who ran a small jazz label in New York City, said he would record it on his Commodore label. When Commodore released it in 1939, it was a bigger hit than anyone had ever imagined it would be. It sold more than a million copies. Both the recording and Billie Holiday, who continued to sing it in night clubs, continued to be lauded for Strange Fruit, which graphically includes lyrics about black bodies swaying in the southern breeze when hanging from poplar trees. Some commentators went so far as to say it did more to decrease lynchings than anything else. Time Magazine in 1999 named it as the song of the century.

But going back to attempts to bring about federal anti-lynching legislation, it was obvious to many congressmen that such a law was needed. It’s been well documented that between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s, there were more than 3,440 black people hung in the U.S. – most in southern states. But there was no way to bring the white people who engaged in what Franklin Roosevelt described in a radio broadcast in 1933 as “collective murder” to justice. White juries in the South would not convict white people who killed black people. Between 1918 and 1968, there were as many as 200 bills introduced in the U.S. Congress to make lynching a federal offense. Not one of these bills was passed, and the reason was, many people claimed, that it was the southern democrats in Congress who always blocked this kind of legislation.

Finally, in 1968, Congress passed what amounted to an anti-lynching law in the Civil Rights Act of 1968. But one brave jazz singer, who died in 1959, had already done more to bring about an end to the brutal hangings of African-Americans than Congress could ever accomplish. The statistics demonstrate that after Billie Holiday’s recording of Strange Fruit, lynchings declined markedly. In the five years after her recording of the song, the hangings of African-Americans dropped by more than 34 percent  when compared to the five years before her record came out.

And that’s a story every student should know about.


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